Let’s face it, the original computer game developers didn’t have any specialized education. A lot of the game developers from Sweden that started out in the 80s and 90s didn’t stick around after high school. They got the skills they needed on their own and got cracking. Why should you go to school in order to become a game developer?
Learning is a life-long challenge. We live in the information age, when information is constantly available and constantly updated. The time between the discovery of a problem solving method and your being able to share it is reduced to seconds, hours, or days. However, Information is only useful to a person who has the framework of reference, the discipline and the skills to translate the information into fruitful action.
Some people learn best alone, studying books. Others want to pick things apart and figure out how they work. Most people learn well in groups and from people with previous experience.
We humans are leaning machines. If you haven’t already, go read Raph Koster’s excellent book “A Theory of Fun for Game Design”. Just look at society and the development curve of the human race. Learning is fun. It rewards us with dopamine and also with new skills. Learning is necessary. If we don’t learn, we quickly become unable to function within the game industry.
I myself am fairly well educated, but I have no formal training in game development. I have 3 years of art school and 4 1/2 years at university level for at total of 7 1/2 years of post high school training. I’ve also helped organize and manage game development educations at the University of Skövde and at The Game Assembly, which is a vocational training program.
The games industry of the 70s, 80s or 90s is no more. Teams today are larger and many more people work in the industry. The individuals who can and will acquire tier one skills on their own are usually entrepreneurs or savants, and/or come from very strong backgrounds with easy access to equipment, money and knowledge outside of formal education. The game industry of today relies heavily on schools to train the majority of new talent.
When I went to university in pursuit of my master’s degree in sociology, I was told that a wide knowledge base is helpful to research work. The actual skill set for collecting and arranging data is not huge. It can be taught in a couple of months. It’s analysis, as well as the formulation of a hypothesis, that is the real challenge. Data in itself is neutral information. In order to make good use of it we have to put it into the correct context, conduct correct analysis and draw well-founded and fruitful conclusions. To do that we need knowledge of different theories and methodologies. That’s why scientists tend to be well-read, often in and outside of their narrow specialty. Information is power, but only if it can be put to good use.
Creativity is sometimes defined as taking something from one context and putting it in a different context. Say, applying musical theory to painting, asking a car designer to draw a house or wearing a top hat with a t-shirt. Creativity is not always successful, or even inspired, but sometimes it strikes gold. Trying to piece things that don’t normally go together into a new whole is easier and more fun the more pieces you have to chose from.
Look at some iconic moments of discovery. Archimedes in his bath tub (Eureka!), or Newton under the apple tree. (Well, arguably he watched apples fall. He didn’t get bopped on the head by one.) They were doing unrelated things, but they had the knowledge and the focus to relate their experiences to their primary work.
The context of discovery reflects a creative process. It is close to what psychology calls “hunching”; the process of discovering or inventing a possible solution. The context of justification describes what comes after, when you prove how and why something works. Justification cannot help you to invent anything, only to understand it after the fact. Justification allows greater confidence in a new solution and makes it easier to iterate and troubleshoot around it. If you want to be creative, learn many different things. If you want to justify and be an expert, learn a few disciplines well. If you can, try to do both, i.e. learn a few things well and keep a wide range of interests on the side.
Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, worked in an amusement park after gambling away his college tuition money. Day in and day out, while working a stand, he saw people willing to pay good money for quick entertainment experiences. He was already in engineering college, where he had come across a copy of Space War by Steve Russell on the campus PDP-1 computer. The idea struck him: a computer game could be an attraction people would pay for, like pinball machines or raffles. That’s why computer games were first commercialized as arcade machines. This is a good example of context of discovery.
Calle Lundgren, my co-founder at Junebud, lives by a “rule of new”. It’s a simple sorting device he applies to all things in life. If there’s a choice situation he always picks an alternative he hasn’t tried before. That means new food, new equipment, new people. A simple everyday rule like this can keep you supplied with new stimuli and keep your life from getting boring.
French mathematician Jean-Marie Constant Duhamel once put it this way, “The definition of a thing is the expression of its relations to other known things”. Having a wealth of experience will allow you to contrast and compare. That’s how we understand most things: by comparing them to something we’re already familiar with. Then we decide what’s different and what’s similar.
In Sweden, every bachelor or master level program has to have a plan for imparting not only the specific skills and theory associated with, for instance, game development, but it also has to teach general skills like report writing, presentation skills, scientific method, et cetera. This serves two purposes: 1) It promotes communication skills by ensuring every student can explain their work to layman and specialist alike 2) it teaches abstract skills, such as documentation, analysis and research, that can be of use in many different situations throughout a lifetime.
Abstract thinking skills improve our ability to improvise. Abstract means non-specific and is the opposite of concrete. Abstract thinking allows us, for instance, to recognize all the different types of chair as ‘chairs’. It allows us to understand how non-chair objects can be used to fill the same function as a chair, because we’ve determined the abstract qualities of a chair; you can sit on it and get up off the ground: it offers some back support. Abstract thinking skills are what allow us think of things that don’t exist yet. All higher education is designed to train your skills in abstraction and abstract reasoning.
Theory is a tool in your tool box. Most of the time when we work, creatively or in production tasks, theory is not needed. We need practical skill, energy and motivation. Theory comes into its own when we come across a problem we can’t just work through.
For example: I often think of art theory in particular as a de-bugging tool. Perhaps that drawing seems off, and nothing you do will get it to work. It’s time to go over basic theoretical considerations: color temperature, complimentary colors, composition, direction, perspective, et cetera. More often than not that will produce a good clue as to what’s wrong, so you can resolve the issue and get back to your production task.
Vocational training programs like The Game Assembly focus on concrete skills: writing code, painting textures, building 3D models, and so on. Abstract skills, such a math, are taught only when necessary to allow for use of the concrete skills. This means students from a vocational program will typically have stronger concrete skills, but weaker abstract skills. Some people, such as myself, invest the time and money to attend both kinds of education. What will work out for you is an open question. The important thing is that you’re able to make informed decisions on what types of skills you want and where to get them.
Importantly, all good game development educations feature game projects as part of the curriculum. If a school is any good, these student game projects will include working together with team members from both your own discipline as well as other disciplines.
Game projects represent the concrete application of the skills necessary to develop games. They’re the only way to get familiar with the practicalities of game development. Familiarity and experience reduces stress and allows for iteration and personal taste. If you’re looking into a game development education and it has no real game project courses, be wary.
For example: at the University of Skövde, all students participate in at least two mandatory game development projects over three years. One five week project, and later on one ten week project. There are optional, additional projects available depending individual choice. At The Game Assembly, all students participate in no less than six game development projects over two years. At any school, most of the ambitious students will have additional projects of their own, on the side.
If you go to school, you will probably learn the most from your classmates. They will be of your general age and experience level, and they will be solving the same problems as you. The teachers and the courses will merely be the framework around which you learn.
Here’s a summary of my current, abstract understanding of how skill acquisition works.
Acquiring demonstrable skills requires
- A framework of reference
- Experimentation (including failure)
Acquiring demonstrable skills benefits from
- Complimentary existing skills
- Other people to work as sounding boards
Because these are abstract specifications, we can use them for all skill acquisition. This includes professional training later in life, but the really important part is the learning that’s going on every day. The things you learn at the office or when you spend time with your hobbies. Ideas you discuss with a casual acquaintance on a train. Things you see on YouTube or practice at webinars.
Let me close this post with two anecdotes.
When I was a university teacher, a 2nd year student came up to me with a pressing concern. Though he had completed one whole year’s worth of education, he did not feel that he was 33 % complete as a game designer. I could almost see the progress bar he was imagining.
I tried my best to explain to him that learning takes time and does not happen in a linear fashion. Some skills need to “take root”, and many skills are not useful until they are complemented with other skills. Beyond that, some skills are complex. That means they only manifest once a person has mastered several other skills – some of which may themselves be complex. This is why a correctly designed educational program tends to “come together” toward the end.
My second anecdote is also from my university teacher days. I would often receive complaints when students encountered courses that weren’t clearly applicable to game development, like cognitive psychology, or human-computer interaction. These courses were abstract, designed to be of use to students from different disciplines such as industrial engineering, health care or game development.
I used to answer such questions by offering the simile of a boxer trying to stay competitive. A boxer does not just spar and compete. A boxer skips rope, runs, does push-ups, sand bag training, as well as agility, speed and endurance training of many descriptions. A top tier boxer adheres to a mental training regimen. A game developer, too, needs a diverse skill set in order to attain peak efficiency. We cannot simply make games to get better at making games. The people with the talent, discipline, structure and organization to put together a synergetic skill set similar to the boxer above are most likely to rise to the top.